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But Was It True?
What John Kerry said about the Vietnam War and the men who served in it.


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Mackubin Thomas Owens

EDITOR’S NOTE: This article appeared in the February 23, 2004, issue of National Review.

In New Hampshire, Sen. John Kerry claimed victory before a crowd of enthusiastic supporters. Prominently arrayed on the stage with him were veterans, including former Georgia senator Max Cleland, who lost both legs and an arm in Vietnam, and James Rassmann, an Army Special Forces officer in Vietnam whose life Kerry saved. At one point, Kerry thanked his “band of brothers” for supporting him in New Hampshire as they had more than 30 years ago in Vietnam. We proved, he said, that “we still know how to fight for our country.”

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Kerry served with distinction in Vietnam, as a swift-boat commander; he earned a Silver Star (America’s third-highest award for gallantry), a Bronze Star for valor, and three Purple Hearts for combat wounds. But as I heard him invoke the support of veterans in his quest for the White House, I couldn’t help cringing. And if the sentiment expressed in the large number of e-mails I received shortly after I wrote an earlier piece about Kerry is any indication, my reaction was far from unique among Vietnam veterans. One correspondent, the 29-year-old son of a Marine veteran of the war, described watching Kerry’s speech with his father: “The look on his face was one I hadn’t seen since he picked me up from the Boston police station ten years ago.”

No doubt there are many Vietnam veterans who will support Kerry for president because they believe, correctly, that he stepped up to the plate at a time when it was easy to pass, especially if one had Kerry’s background. They will support him because he demonstrated immense courage under fire, and many believe that the crucible of war goes a long way toward shaping character. But those who might be otherwise inclined to support him should ask themselves if they appreciate being portrayed as war criminals: murderers, rapists, men capable of committing the most heinous atrocities. This is how Kerry did, in fact, portray them, when he was a leader of the Vietnam Veterans Against the War (VVAW).

SLANDER AGAINST A GENERATION

The flap over Kerry’s Vietnam service is a manifestation of an ongoing culture war. On one side are those who believe that Vietnam wasn’t that different from other wars: The cause was just, but–like any other war–touched by ambiguities. Those who fought it were doing their duty as they saw it, just as their fathers and grandfathers had done. On the other side are those for whom the Vietnam war represented the very essence of evil. It was not like other wars: It was one continuous atrocity, in which war crimes were normal. Moreover, Americans who fought in it were radically different from earlier U.S. soldiers: They came home psychologically if not physically crippled–homeless, drug-addicted, and likely to commit suicide.

In his antiwar activism, John Kerry gave credence to the latter view–and thereby helped to slander a generation of soldiers who had done their duty with honor and restraint. Why did he do it? Some of the answers can be found in Douglas Brinkley’s new biography of Kerry, Tour of Duty: John Kerry and the Vietnam War; but, ultimately, it is Kerry himself who will have to explain to his fellow veterans why he chose a path that dishonors their service.

In Brinkley’s account, Kerry–like many other vets–was disillusioned by the war, but did not return home as a radical antiwar activist. According to Detroit News reporter Jerald ter Horst, friends of Kerry said that when he first began talking about running for office, he was not visibly agitated about Vietnam. “I thought of him as a rather normal vet,” a friend told ter Horst, “glad to be out but not terribly uptight about the war.” Another acquaintance who talked to Kerry about his political ambitions called him a “very charismatic fellow looking for a good issue.”

Kerry was entitled to leave Vietnam after receiving his third Purple Heart. He petitioned to do so and was assigned as a special assistant to Adm. Walter Schlech Jr., commander of the Military Sea Transport Service, U.S. Atlantic Fleet, headquartered in Brooklyn. According to Brinkley, Kerry was outraged to hear of the death of one of his swift-boat comrades: “What was happening to the Swifties in the Mekong Delta was, to [Kerry's] mind, a grave government mistake.” He was proud of his service and grateful to be alive, “but due to his firsthand experience in Vietnam, his head told him that the Nixon administration’s foreign policy was dangerously wrongheaded. Everyday good sailors . . . were being sacrificed for Nixon’s ego trip that he would not be the first president to lose a war.”

Like most of those who returned from Vietnam, Kerry was also upset with his countrymen–who treated returning soldiers with indifference at best, and hostility at worst. He was moved to anger by the often inadequate treatment of wounded veterans in the VA hospital system. In October 1969, Kerry’s sister Peggy, an antiwar activist, introduced him to Adam Walinsky, a former speechwriter for Robert Kennedy. Inspired by Walinsky’s antiwar beliefs and the Moratorium Day demonstrations of October 15, Kerry decided he had to speak out against the war. According to Brinkley, Kerry said that “if you loved America, you knew we had to extricate ourselves from Vietnam at once.” Kerry petitioned Admiral Schlech for an early release from the Navy so he could protest the war–and run for Congress. The admiral approved his request, and Kerry received an honorable discharge. (Kerry ended up dropping out of the 1970 congressional race in favor of the famed antiwar Jesuit priest, Robert Drinan.)

I can certainly understand Kerry’s judgments about the war. War is terrible and brutal; good men die. Those of us who served in Vietnam lost friends and men we led–men for whom we were responsible. I don’t know of a single Vietnam veteran who doesn’t believe that in some way, the war was a terrible waste. But what Kerry did after leaving the Navy constituted a breach of trust with his fellow veterans, because, to protest the war, he cast aspersions upon their conduct. He joined VVAW and participated in two events that went a long way toward cementing in the public mind the image of Vietnam as one big atrocity.

The first of these was the “Winter Soldier Investigation” (Jan. 31-Feb. 2, 1971) organized by such antiwar celebrities as Jane Fonda and conspiracy theorist Mark Lane. At this event, individuals purporting to be Vietnam veterans told horrible stories of atrocities: burning villages, using prisoners for target practice, and gang-raping women as a matter of course. The second event was “Dewey Canyon III,” from April 19 to 23. It was during this VVAW “operation” that Kerry first came to public attention. The group marched on Congress to deliver petitions, and went on to the White House. The highlight was when veterans threw their medals over a fence in front of the Capitol, symbolizing a rebuke to the government that they claimed had betrayed them. One of the veterans flinging medals back in the face of their government was John Kerry (although it turns out they were not his medals, but someone else’s).

Several days later Kerry testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. His speech, touted as a spontaneous rhetorical endeavor, was a tour de force, convincing many Americans that their country had indeed waged an immoral war. It was particularly powerful because Kerry did not fit the war-protester mold: He was no scruffy, wide-eyed hippie, but the best America had to offer. He was, according to B. G. “Jug” Burkett and Glenna Whitley in their indispensable book, Stolen Valor, the “All-American boy, mentally twisted by being asked to do terrible things, then abandoned by his government.”

Kerry began by invoking the Winter Soldiers Investigation. There, he claimed,

over 150 honorably discharged and many very highly decorated veterans testified to war crimes committed in Southeast Asia. These were not isolated incidents but crimes committed on a day-to-day basis with the full awareness of officers at all levels of command. . . . They relived the absolute horror of what this country, in a sense, made them do. They told stories that at times they had personally raped, cut off ears, cut off heads, taped wires from portable telephones to human genitals and turned up the power, cut off limbs, blown up bodies, randomly shot at civilians, razed villages in a fashion reminiscent of Genghis Khan, shot cattle and dogs for fun, poisoned food stocks, and generally ravaged the countryside of South Vietnam in addition to the normal ravage of war, and the normal and very particular ravaging which is done by the applied bombing power of this country.

This is quite a bill of particulars to lay at the feet of the U.S. military. Kerry in essence claimed that his fellow veterans had committed unparalleled war crimes in Vietnam as a matter of course; indeed, that it was U.S. policy to commit such atrocities. Kerry’s 1971 testimony includes every left-wing cliché about Vietnam and the men who served there. It is part of the reason that, even today, people who are too young to remember Vietnam are predisposed to believe the worst about that conflict and those who fought it.

TRUTH CHECK

The first major cliché was that atrocities were widespread in Vietnam. Atrocities did occur in Vietnam, as they have in all wars; the most notorious was the 1968 My Lai massacre, in which hundreds of civilians were killed. But despite the accepted image of the Vietnam war as particularly brutal, atrocities were fairly infrequent. Between 1965 and 1973, 201 soldiers and 77 Marines were convicted of serious crimes against the Vietnamese. (Needless to say, the fact that many crimes, in war as in peace, go unreported, combined with the particular difficulties encountered by Americans fighting in Vietnam, suggest that more such acts were committed than reported.) The late Ron Ridenour, the soldier who publicized the My Lai massacre, has been quoted as saying, “There were plenty of My Lais”–but this claim is simply false. Even Daniel Ellsberg, a severe critic of U.S. policy in Vietnam, rejected the argument that My Lai was in any way a normal event: “My Lai was beyond the bounds of permissible behavior, and that is recognizable by virtually every soldier in Vietnam. They know it was wrong. . . . The men who were at My Lai knew there were aspects out of the ordinary. That is why they tried to hide the event, talked about it to no one, discussed it very little even among themselves.”

So how does one account for the testimony of the veterans that Kerry cited in his address to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee? My own belief is that it was part of a ritual. To the antiwar Left, atrocities revealed the Nazi-like character of “Amerika.” But, unlike their Nazi counterparts, U.S. soldiers could be redeemed: By confessing that they had indeed committed widespread atrocities, the Vietnam veterans were able to receive absolution for their sins from the antiwar Left, and were accordingly transmuted into innocent victims of a brutal war.

Understandably, most veterans take these confessions with a grain of salt. When I read Mark Lane’s 1970 book, Conversations with Americans, and the transcripts of the Winter Soldiers Investigation, I was struck by how implausible most of the atrocity claims were. I was apparently not alone. Lane’s book was panned by James Reston Jr. and Neil Sheehan, not exactly known as war supporters; Sheehan demonstrated that many of Lane’s “eyewitnesses” either had never served in Vietnam or had not done so in the capacities they claimed.

In a recent letter to the Wall Street Journal, author Gerald Nicosia alleged that no impostor veterans were ever found to have taken part in the Winter Soldiers Investigation–but that’s not what government investigators discovered. When Sen. Mark Hatfield inserted the transcript of the Winter Soldier testimonies into the Congressional Record, he asked the commandant of the Marine Corps to investigate the war crimes allegedly committed by Marines. When the Naval Investigative Service (NIS) attempted to interview those who allegedly had witnessed atrocities, most refused to cooperate, even after assurances that they would not be questioned about atrocities they committed personally. Those who did cooperate never provided details of actual crimes to investigators. The NIS also discovered that some of the most grisly testimony was given by fake witnesses who had appropriated the names of real Vietnam veterans. Guenter Lewy tells the entire story in his book America in Vietnam.

The same thing happened with Army investigators. As Lewy wrote, “The refusal of [those alleging atrocities] to give substantiating factual information . . . created a situation in which the accusers continued to reap generous publicity for their sensational charges while the Army in most cases could neither investigate nor refute them.” Lewy concluded that there was another reason to be wary of such allegations: They were retrospective reports and therefore subject to distortion, “created by the veterans’ perception of the interviewers and organizers of the hearings, by their attitudes toward the military and by their difficulties in adjusting to civilian life after discharge.”

THE CRAZED-VET SMEAR

Kerry’s testimony didn’t merely lend credibility to these atrocity stories; it also validated in the public mind the second major left-wing cliché about Vietnam, i.e., that it scarred an entire generation of young men. The media have been peddling this “Vietnam vet goes berserk” angle for a very long time. A milestone of sorts was the 1988 CBS documentary The Wall Within, which caricatured Vietnam veterans: They routinely committed war crimes; they came home from an immoral war traumatized; were vilified, then pitied; jobless, homeless, addicted, suicidal, they remain afflicted, stranded on the fringes of society.

For years, those of us who served in Vietnam have tried to make the case that this popular image of the Vietnam vet as maladjusted loser was at odds with reality. Indeed, it was our experience that those who had served in Vietnam generally did so with honor, decency, and restraint; that despite often being viewed with distrust or opprobrium at home, most had asked for nothing but to be left alone to make the transition back to civilian life; and that most had in fact made that transition–if not always smoothly, at least successfully.

But the press always found the stereotypical traumatized vet who could be counted on to tell the most harrowing Vietnam stories, often involving atrocities–the sort of stories Kerry gave credence to in his 1971 testimony. As noted earlier, many of the stories were wildly implausible to anyone who had been in Vietnam, but credulous journalists, most of whom had no military experience, uncritically passed their reports along to the public.

I had always agreed with the observation of the late Harry Summers, a well-known military commentator who served as an infantryman in Korea and Vietnam, that the storyteller’s distance from the battle zone was directly proportional to the gruesomeness of his atrocity story. But until the publication of the Burkett/Whitley book, Stolen Valor, I had no idea just how true that observation was. In the course of trying to raise money for a Texas Vietnam Veterans Memorial, Burkett discovered that reporters were interested only in homeless, drug-abusing veterans, and that the corporate leaders he approached had also bought into the stereotype: Vietnam veterans were not honorable men who took pride in their service, but welfare cases bellyaching about their grievances. Fed up, Burkett did something any reporter could have done: He used the Freedom of Information Act to check the actual records of the “image makers” used by reporters to flesh out their stories on troubled vets. What he found was astounding: More often than not, the showcase “veteran” who cried on camera about his dead buddies, about committing or witnessing atrocities, or about some heroic action in combat that led him to the current dead end in his life, was an impostor. Burkett discovered that over the last decade, some 1,700 individuals, including some of the most prominent examples of the Vietnam veteran as dysfunctional loser, had fabricated their war stories. Many had never even been in the service. Others had been, but had never been in Vietnam.

The story of Joe Yandle is a case in point. Yandle had admitted to being the getaway driver during a 1972 liquor-store holdup in Medford, Mass., that resulted in the murder of the store manager. Under Massachusetts law, even though Yandle did not pull the trigger, he was as complicit as the gunman. Convicted of the crime and sentenced to life in prison without parole, Yandle never claimed to be innocent, but contended that Vietnam had driven him to drugs and crime. 60 Minutes did a segment in which Mike Wallace told viewers that Yandle did two tours in Vietnam, and survived the 77-day siege of Khe Sanh; and that he then “came home with a Bronze Star for valor, two Purple Hearts, and something else–a heroin habit.” The 60 Minutes report was instrumental in convincing then-governor William Weld to commute Yandle’s life sentence to time served–23 years. But Burkett discovered that although Yandle had indeed served in the Marines and had been honorably discharged, he had never set foot in Vietnam at all.

Thanks to Burkett’s work, Yandle is now back in prison. But what is striking about his case is the predisposition of journalists to accept uncritically the claim that service in Vietnam is an explanation for criminal activity at home. How could the hard-nosed Mike Wallace and others like him be so easily taken in? Burkett’s answer to this question stands as a rebuke to American journalism. It is also a rebuke to John Kerry.

MORE LIES

Kerry gave credence to other falsehoods about Americans who served in Vietnam. According to the conventional wisdom, those who served in Vietnam were largely young and poor, and minorities were disproportionately represented. These men suffered unspeakable trauma; the horrors of the war led many to turn to drugs and crime. As many as half of those who served in Vietnam suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and, as a result, more Vietnam veterans have committed suicide than died in the war. Vietnam veterans are disproportionately represented among the homeless and the incarcerated. The Vietnam veteran was, and is, a ticking time bomb.

The problem is, there is no scientific evidence to support these assertions. Take the claim about minorities. The record actually shows that 86 percent of those who died were white and 12.5 percent black, from an age group in which blacks made up 13.1 percent of the population. Two-thirds of those who served in Vietnam were volunteers, and volunteers accounted for 77 percent of combat deaths. As for PTSD, it is a real phenomenon, but not nearly as widespread as the press portrays it. For instance, the claim that PTSD continues to affect nearly one half of the 3.3 million men who served in Vietnam is implausible, especially given that fewer than 15 percent of those who served there were assigned to combat units. A study by the Centers for Disease Control reported that 15 percent of Vietnam veterans experienced some symptoms of combat-related PTSD at some time during or after military service, but that only 2.2 percent exhibited symptoms at the time of the study. (One study reported that 25 percent of WWII veterans suffered from psychological symptoms similar to those ascribed to PTSD.) The suicide claim, too, is preposterous. In fact, the suicide rate for Vietnam veterans is no higher than for non-veterans. The same is true for rates of drug abuse, homelessness, and incarceration. And while many Vietnam veterans believe their health problems are the result of Agent Orange, there are simply no epidemiological studies that support this belief. According to Jon Franklin, a Pulitzer Prize-winning writer for the Baltimore Evening Sun, “The Agent Orange story was a myth created by a group of Vietnam-era protesters, seized upon by Vietnam vets, and disseminated by the press.”

In his 1971 testimony, Kerry portrayed the Vietnam veteran as ashamed of his service:

We wish that a merciful God could wipe away our own memories of that service as easily as this administration has wiped away their memories of us. But all that they have done and all that they can do by this denial is to make more clear than ever our own determination to undertake one last mission, to search out and destroy the last vestige of this barbaric war, to pacify our own hearts, to conquer the hate and fear that have driven this country these last ten years and more . . . And so when thirty years from now our brothers go down the street without a leg, without an arm, or a face, and small boys ask why, we will be able to say ‘Vietnam’ and not mean a desert, not a filthy obscene memory, but mean instead the place where America finally turned and where soldiers like us helped it in the turning.

And yet . . . a comprehensive 1980 survey reported that 91 percent of those who had seen combat in Vietnam were “glad they had served their country”; 80 percent disagreed with the statement that “the U.S. took advantage of me”; and nearly two out of three would go to Vietnam again, even knowing how the war would end.

THE REAL QUESTIONS

Concerning the war itself, count me as one who believes that it was worth fighting and that abandoning Vietnam was a tragedy. The cost of U.S. defeat was high, especially to the South Vietnamese and Cambodians: The Communist “liberation” of South Vietnam cost, in addition to Saigon’s war dead, a minimum of 100,000 summary executions at the hands of the Communist liberators, about a million “boat people,” and a like number of individuals sentenced to “reeducation camps.” Other consequences included genocide in Cambodia and a perceived shift in the “correlation of forces” that encouraged Soviet adventurism throughout the 1970s.

While reasonable people can disagree about the wisdom of the war, they can’t gainsay the commitment of those who fought it. I think of the platoon I led from September 1968 until May 1969. The men of that platoon would all have preferred to be somewhere other than Vietnam’s northern Quang Tri province, but they were doing their duty as it was understood at the time. In those days, men built their lives around their military obligation, and if a war happened on their watch, fighting was part of the obligation. For the most part, they were barely out of high school, but they became skillful, steady warriors, who, with only a few exceptions, returned home with little bitterness about the war.

They were the best men I have ever known. I would put them up against any other generation of warriors. I trusted them with my life and they trusted me with theirs. Of course, as in all wars, there were the occasional cowards, laggards, and chronic complainers. But overall, those who fought in Vietnam were the real “best and brightest” of the Baby Boomer generation.

Today, Senator Kerry appeals to veterans in his quest for the White House. He invokes his Vietnam service at every turn. But . . . how can he? If he believes his 1971 indictment of his country and his fellow veterans was true, then he couldn’t possibly be proud of his Vietnam service. Who can be proud of committing war crimes of the sort that Kerry recounted in his 1971 testimony? But if he is proud of his service today, perhaps it is because he always knew that his indictment in 1971 was a piece of political theater that he, an aspiring politician, exploited merely as a “good issue.” If the latter is true, he should apologize to all the men who served in that war, for slandering them to advance his political fortunes.

–Mackubin Thomas Owens, a contributing editor to National Review Online, is a professor of strategy and force planning at the Naval War College in Newport, R.I. He led a Marine infantry platoon in Vietnam in 1968-69.

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